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Why it Took 41 Producers to Get ‘The Butler’ Off the Ground

The Butler will open Aug. 16 in U.S theaters to mixed reviews, but everyone can agree the period film,starring Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey has set a new record for the number of producers credited for a single film.

So why did it take 41 producers to make The Butler?

According to the Hollywood Reporter,  it all has to do with how the film business is conducted these days.

The late producer Laura Ziskin with her producing partner Pam Williams  saw a Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, a black butler who worked at the White House for eight presidents, and immediately thought it would be a great idea for a film.

Just as filmmaker Spike Lee said recently he was kickstarting his films before there was a Kickstarter crowd-sourcing website, the two women began their own offline “kickstarter” campaign.

After they were turned down by all the major studios despite Ziskin’s track record, which included producing Sam Raimi’s Spider Man movies that made billions of dollars worldwide.

According to Williams: It didn’t fit into the business model driven by international sales. It was a period piece that was about American politics. It was an African-American film. It seemed to have everything against what the studios are looking for in terms of the franchises, the big tent poles,”

Undeterred by studio rejections and with Lee Daniels and his producing partner Hilary Shor aboard, Ziskin and Williams decided to independently raise the money for the film, which they originally budgeted for $25 million though it eventually rose to $30 million.

Ziskin and Williams first reached out to Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of BET and the ex-wife of former BET co-founder Robert Johnson, who loved the script and invested $2.7 million of her own money into the project.

Johnson then started to campaign to bring in other African-American investors, but most never returned her phone calls. However, she was able to bring in a few, such as millionaire businessman Earl W. Stafford; Harry I. Martin Jr., president and CEO of Intelligent Decisions; and even her son, Brett Johnson.

The project suffered a setback when Ziskin died after a long battle with breast cancer in June 2011. That prompted Daniels and Shor to approach former agent and indie film producer Cassian Elwes, who has some 60 films to his producing credit, and they, along with Williams, continued to look for money.

In  early 2012, the Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik’s British financing and production company, Icon U.K.,  bought in with a $6 million guarantee against foreign presales. And shortly after that, Stuart Ford’s IM Global took the project to Cannes, where he closed $6 million in sales to foreign distributors.

After that success, more investors came aboard, such as former NBA player Michael Finley and Buddy Patrick, who comes from a wealthy New Orleans family. Eventually the team was able to raise $16 million with the rest covered through tax rebates and foreign presales.

“The Butler”  has 41 producers because each new investor was credited with an on-screen credit of “producer” or “executive producer.”  The rest is history.


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